Ninoy for our times

A monument of Ninoy Aquino stands in the corner of Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas in Makati City

One of the things I have learned while working at a multinational company is that the Philippines have so many holidays compared to other countries. Aside from the regular holidays, such as New Year’s Day and Christmas, the national government has made it a tradition to declare special non-working holidays for all kinds of events. Some of these have been declared as such for so many years already that many people, myself included, confuse them for regular holidays. For example, All Saints’ Day.

But other holidays appear whimsical, almost as if the government is only too happy to save Filipinos from working: count in this category the additional non-working days adjacent to the regular holidays, such as January 2 and December 26. And then there are the many local government holidays. This year, three holidays have been declared for Metro Manila on the occasion of the Pope’s visit. Two more days in November will be observed as non-working holidays for an APEC meeting (seen by many as a drastic solution to ease traffic in the metropolis while the world leaders meet).

Most tragic, however, is the realization that the original intention of these special days—to commemorate special events in the nation’s life—are lost on many Filipinos. Some of those who do remember the significance are overcome with cynicism. “Wala namang nangyayari,” they would say, drawing from the spirit of hopelessness that possesses so many Filipino citizens. For others, especially many of the youth, the holidays are just another opportunity to ‘enjoy life’. Better is the holiday that creates a long weekend than the one that does not, because it allows us to spend longer trips to the beach, or abroad.

It is imperative though, for idealistic but heartfelt reasons, that we restore the honor of our holidays by properly reflecting on their stories. We can start with today’s holiday: Ninoy Aquino Day.

A monument of Ninoy Aquino stands in the corner of Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas in Makati City
Ninoy Aquino monument in Ayala Avenue, Makati City

Icon and action

I am writing this early in the morning of August 21, before I pick up the morning paper, before I can watch any coverage of the day’s official activities or learn about it on social media. And so I start with the important facts of Ninoy’s life. (I am recalling these from memory, and I risk stating a few errors.)

Benigno Aquino, Jr., was a senator during the Martial Law era, hailing from the famous clan of Tarlac. Before becoming a high-ranking politician, he was a journalist, known for his frequent contact with rebels from the insurgencies before the Marcos regime. As a senator he rose to become a figurehead for the opposition, and for this tag he was imprisoned, and exiled.

Famously, he once stated that “the Filipino is worth dying for.” And die for Filipinos he did: in spite of apparent threats to his life, he returned to the Philippines from exile, and moments after stepping out of the plane on the tarmac of Manila International Airport, he was shot and killed. (The airport was later renamed in his honor.)

His death sparked public outrage. The investigations conducted after the assassination were mired in controversy and the findings never gained widespread acceptance—but the assassination was widely seen as the work of the dictatorship’s agents, if not a direct order by Marcos himself. Ninoy was framed as a martyr, and his death has often been identified as the turning point towards Marcos’s downfall.

With such a grand story, the man fully deserves to be remembered with a national holiday. Ninoy Aquino is also remarkable today as a national hero and martyr because of proximity—he lived his life only in the last generation, and many who witnessed the conditions of his time are still alive today. For this we can relate to his heroism more than we could with Rizal, Bonifacio, Luna or Silang. For this, as well, we should feel moved, that only as recently as three decades ago there was a Filipino who could imagine and identify with our nation, and put its life before his very own.

This is one thing that we can learn from remembering Ninoy and commemorating his holiday. But, without intending to diminish his glory, we should also learn from the context of his life. We should also think of the Filipino people he served at a great cost, at the greatest cost in fact for him and his family.

Ninoy Aquino was the icon and symbol of the people’s uprising, but he was not the only one to bring about the downfall of the dictatorship. It is important to remember that the EDSA Revolution was born too out of the Philippine economic crisis of the mid-1980s. Ninoy’s death may have been a significant emotional trigger for the revolution, but what pushed many people personally, beyond their tipping point and out onto the streets, was hyperinflation and economic recession, which took years for the country to recover from.

Ninoy was the icon, but it was the people’s collective action that directly brought change. It was the people taking risks as a community, it was the people moving as a nation.


But, what now?

It is a great story, surely worth remembering and retelling, but what does it mean for our own times? How do we turn lesson into action, how do we exercise praxis?

We should note, first and foremost, that not all of us are ready for sacrifices. For Ninoy, the Filipino was worth dying for; for most of us today, we cannot honestly state and commit to the same. We can be realistically apathetic and say that too many have died already; or we can be critically apathetic and say that we should not have a society in the first place where one has to die for others. Both acceptable opinions, I would say.

To fully commemorate Ninoy Aquino Day, we do not have to be willing to sacrifice at the grand level of martyrdom. As I have advocated before, one thing we can concretely do at least, as individual citizens, is to change our attitude and end cynicism. This is a first step that could go a long way if only we exercise it.

And then, we can follow with education. This is not just about formal education; more importantly, for those of us who have graduated from school, we should practice critical, continuing education. After discarding our cynical, hyper-practical attitudes, we should diligently follow currents events. Not trivial issues, not political-celebrity news. We should learn about real events that impact people directly: we should learn about the laws our congressmen and senators are writing, the rulings our courts are promulgating, the executive acts our leaders are signing.

We should be wary of rhetoric, be critical and avoid falling victim to backward politics. This is most true for those privileged enough among us to be relatively free from life’s necessities and have enough leisure to exercise citizenship.

Finally, we can then hope that this knowledge aligns us to the national narrative eventually; and that we will come across an opportunity to take action, to perform a worthy sacrifice we are willing and capable of making.


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